Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But the nuts and bolts of what you can do get determined primarily by class. (Race and background play a role though, too.) Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, class picks up where backstory leaves off, giving skills and abilities for a life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in “Playing D&D with class” are musings and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D.
As a longtime player and Dungeon Master i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization. And when it comes to characters i’m a purist – multiclass characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
Excellence of execution
One of the quintessential elements of D&D, the “fighting man” has been around since the inception of the game, persisting throughout every edition as the go-to combat-focused character class. Along with the magic-user and cleric, these stalwart figures have been tackling the dungeons and the dragons since the very beginning.
With their ability to wear any armor and wield any weapon, along with plentiful hit points, fighters stood the best chance of survival. They came equipped with the inexhaustible resource of consistent attacks long before the introduction of skills, feats, proficiencies or any of the bells and whistles of today’s D&D.
Perhaps the most relatable class (along with the rogue), the fighter generally has no magical, mystical, supernatural or primal energy they tap into in order to perform. Instead, they rely on superior training and skill to offer a platform with a huge amount of versatility to create endless variations.
Across the evolving editions of D&D, fighters have gained access to plentiful options, many of which incorporate elements of magic and mysticism. But the chassis for the class, in the most basic form, is the armored and armed warrior. This is reflected in the D&D Basic Rules available for free from Wizards of the Coast, where the Champion archetype represents the consummate fighter.
In any sort of game incorporating combat, the goal in a fight is to deplete the foes’ ability to continue while maintaining one’s own, and in this the fighter represents the purest example of the paradigm.
Every other class trades pure fighting ability for different ways of achieving this goal. The wizard trades hit points and skill with arms and armor for diverse arcane methods of dealing with enemies. The rogue trades those attributes for precision strikes and noncombat skills. The cleric foregoes weapon training and power for mitigating damage through divine magic. The paladin trades some fighting skill for greater defenses and powerful smites. And so on down the list of character classes. All of the options are viable in their own right, and provide limitless avenues for players to engage their imagination and the game world.
Standing resolute among them all, the fighter remains ready to wade into battle at a moment’s notice. They need no preparation, no special combinations of abilities, skills, feats or spells. Their skills work under any conditions – they simply pick up a weapon and they’re ready to go toe-to-toe with whatever monsters they encounter.
Because the fighter comes packaged with a minimalist design, it offers vast space for character development. This isn’t to say any of the D&D classes don’t have a wide berth for creating lots of different sorts of characters. But where others bring to mind particular imagery, the fighter’s generic nature doesn’t lend itself to a certain archetype.
In AD&D, the fighter was not only the shortest entry of all the character classes, it also has zero description or flavor. There is no text stating what a fighter’s place in the world is, special abilities to evoke the kind of focus they have or mention of their outlook or how others look upon them.
The entry briefly touches on establishing a freehold, attracting followers and collecting taxes, suggesting the fighter’s position as a lord. But how this character goes about adventuring and lording is left entirely to the imagination.
Second edition AD&D’s fighter entry sticks to the same design, but adds a bit of flavor by describing some legendary fighters from myth and history, as well as providing a great table for players to roll on to determine the kinds of followers gained. Still the shortest class entry, fighters begin to show signs of rising far above others when it comes to pure combat. Explicitly stated to be masters of weapons, fighters continue to forgo fancy abilities to have a limitless resource of fighting power, round after round.
When D&D’s third edition rolled around, fighters again were short and sweet. And this time they got more feats than any other class. Oh, the feats. Arguably a golden age for fighters, in this edition – especially with the addition of splat books and the enormous wealth of feats – fighters took fighting to sublime levels. With the right combinations of feats, fighters could perform spectacular maneuvers on par with magical spells.
Fourth edition’s design model of giving every class access to “powers” and assigning them specific roles presented the fighter as a defender. Their powers primarily dealt with moving enemies around and keeping the focus on themselves, allowing their allies to fulfill other roles like crowd control and precision striking. In a sense, the fighter’s broad versatility in terms of conceptual design was kind of diminished here.
And now in the age of fifth edition D&D, the fighter has evolved into a solid option playing to the best aspects of its own history. Still masters of martial combat, the D&D 5E fighter is widely considered the simplest class to play.
There are no spell slots to manage or spells to continuously refer to the PHB about (well, there’s the Eldritch Knight martial archetype), no conditions to strive for in order to employ special attacks like the rogue’s sneak attack, no rage, no ki, no sorcery points, no nuthin’.
What this trip down memory lane illustrates is D&D fighters have no particular niche in the fantasy worlds they inhabit. There is no cultural inference attached to the class, no code, ethics or outlook tying individual fighters together or to something greater. They can be specialists devoted to a single weapon or style, or generalists ready to arm and armor themselves with whatever is available.
Looking for inspiration
Fictional, historical or contemporary examples for a fighter are ubiquitous. Any person or character whose primarily talent is fighting can be a model or jumping-off point for a fighter character. The best thing about D&D fighters is how encompassing the class can be. It might be the simplest class to play, and more generic than others, but in no way is it limited in scope.
In D&D 3.5 i joined a campaign in progress with a 9th level character. The focus of the campaign was fighting back against a dragon invasion, and i thought it would be fun to play a character inspired by the dragoon, or lancer, from Final Fantasy.
The other players all weighed in with suggestions for multiclass options. i couldn’t begin to tell you all the ideas thrown about. In the end, straight-up fighter made the most sense – and proved incredibly effective! The choices i made way back when were validated in a recent Nerdarcy video where they built a dragoon for fifth edition D&D. They arrived at the same conclusion i did many years ago: fighter makes the best dragoon. My additional recommendation though – go with air genasi for the race. It was perfect back in the day and still an excellent, fun choice for today’s dragoon.
The point is D&D fighters are incredibly versatile because the chassis is so basic. A fighter can be devoted to mastering a single weapon like Miyamoto Musashi or prepared to utilize any weapon like Jason Bourne. Fighters can don plate armor and sword-and-board like Jaime Lannister or wield a two-handed maul like Reinhardt. Fighters can just as easily stay nimble and lightly armored, like the cunning sellsword Bronn.
A character who brings top level combat skills to the table, able to use any weapon or armor without incorporating magic or special conditions, is a fighter. The great thing about D&D 5E is there are several opportunities to build different elements onto the basic fighter through race, archetype and feat choices. But if you’re looking for a solid character who will always be reliable in combat, a fighter is the best place to start.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as characters built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
Constitution, and either Strength or Dexterity are the bedrock upon which a fighter is built. Constitution adds to survivability by boosting hit point totals. Fighters gonna fight.
The choice to focus on Strength or Dexterity depends on how they plan to do the fighting. A quick, evasive warrior wielding daggers, rapiers, a whip and similar weapons while staying lightly armored will want a high Dexterity. Strength is more important for the armored combatant swinging a greatsword. This covers your rolls.
When it comes to a D&D fighter’s role, it’s kinda right there in the name – they fight. How you approach combat and what that means for the rest of the party depends on needs and choices. A ranged skirmisher might survey the battlefield looking for key targets to pin down or eliminate, providing cover fire for their teammates. A defensive-minded fighter could draw the enemy’s attention to themselves, giving allies opportunities to do their thing from a safer vantage. And a heavy hitter may wade into right into the fray.
The archetype chosen for your fighter affects their approach to combat, too. The well-rounded Champion is the action hero version of a fighter. An exemplar of athleticism and martial prowess, there’s nothing fancy about the Champion – aside from their supreme physicality. Conversely, the Battle Master is a tactician bringing strategy to bear and giving companions advantages in combat. Then there’s the Eldritch Knight, who trades some of a fighter’s martial skill for arcane might and weaves protective and destructive magic into their suite of abilities.
But fighters aren’t one-trick ponies. Away from combat, a D&D fighter can be just as colorful and diverse as they are on the battlefield. In some ways even moreso. Because all of a fighter’s primary functions are covered by class abilities, there is a ton of room to explore variety.
One thing to think about is whether your fighter relishes combat or not. Being a warrior doesn’t necessarily mean the character wants to get into life-and-death situations.
A Champion might look for ways to use athleticism to avoid a fight, perhaps running, climbing and jumping places others can’t go in order to avoid battle or put distance or barriers between hostile creatures and the party. In a fight they might see their deadly precision as a way to decisively end fights as quickly as possible. Away from battle they could enjoy opportunities to use their physical skills that don’t involve mortal danger.
A Battle Master has a tactical mind, and could enjoy games of strategy like chess. Applied to combat, perhaps they seek the quickest and most efficient means to end a fight. There’s a academic aspect to this archetype, and this kind of fighter might be a contemplative sort who practices the art of fighting without fighting. Their analytical thinking might suggest patience and an appreciation for the intricacies of a given topic.
An Eldritch Knight, like the Battle Master, assumes a certain degree of Intelligence applied to their fighter outlook. Except here there is an explicit need since their spellcasting is based on it. With magic focused on protection and destruction, an Eldritch Knight could focus more on one or the other, or aim for an even mix of both. Out of combat they might have a real passion and thirst for knowledge, especially magical knowledge.
The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, consider the fighter. At their core, fighters are tough, strong and quick. Consider what else the character does besides fight. That part of the character is covered in spades. The skills from your character’s background and race can tell their own story and add variety to what the fighter does when they’re not fighting.
Martial archetypes tell a lot about how the fighter approaches combat, but they can also illustrate their general outlook. Do they make bold, rash decisions or take time to contemplate alternative options? Do they have a strong academic interest in History, Arcana or Nature? Do they make it a point to be prepared for any situation and carry many weapons and tools for every occasion, or trust in their singular specialization to overcome challenges? No matter how you imagine your fighter character, they are nothing if not a superb combatant.
Consider the role your fighter will play, how their archetype, background and perspective on combat combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they be a protector of those weaker than them, or a terrifying and implacable foe? Do they seek fame, glory and lordly titles? Fortune? A simple life free from the deadly fighting they so often find themselves embroiled in? Like any character, your fighter comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one yet to be discovered on – and off – the field of battle.
Have you played a fighter character in D&D? What did you think? i have a fondness for fighters because they are so wide open to interpretation. Please let me know in the comments your thoughts on this iconic adventuring class.